In modern parlance Gustav Holst might be regarded as something of a one-hit wonder, though aficionados could point to many other worthy works that have a more esoteric appeal and are far less well-known than The Planets Suite. Not alone among great composers, for most of his life he struggled for recognition and throughout it with ill health and a lack of money. All of this, and much more, is brought to life in Ross McGregor’s nuanced and intriguing biographical play HOLST: The Music In The Spheres at the The Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley, performed by Arrows & Traps Theatre.
Nuanced and intriguing
For the most part this is a naturalistic, yet non-linear narrative play with flashbacks occurring as they relate to a particular phase in the overall chronological progression performed behind the scrim that is a feature of Odin Corie’s set. The design is functional and reflects the simplicity of life that surrounded Holst. The furniture is adaptable and is often incorporated into the surprising scenes of expressive movement, evocatively designed by Will Pinchin, that at intervals heighten the emotional content of various scenes. Throughout, the production is further enhanced by Jonathan Simpson’s lighting design and the sound design by Kristina Kapilin that goes beyond the obvious references to Hoslt’s music to enhance the changing moods.
Two actors dominate the play but they are well supported by the rest of the cast. In a measured and temperately-paced performance, Toby Wynn-Davies captures Holst’s intellect, frustrations, ambitions and desire that all should fulfil their potential and follow their dreams. His physical actions are a reminder of the neuritis in Holst’s right arm that prevented him from becoming a pianist and the increasingly failing eyesight that beset him. At St Paul's Girls' School, where he taught from 1905 until his death in 1934, he pioneered music education, making it a central part of the curriculum. Laurel Marks plays his reluctant pupil Cecilia Payne, whom he brings to a new understanding of music, but more importantly encourages to pursue her passion for mathematics and the sciences that girls at that time were not supposed to study. Marks plays the bullied and friendless girl perfectly balancing Payne’s vulnerability and determination in her battle against the odds and visibly gains confidence and maturity as the years progress. She finds in Holst the support and warmth so lacking in the likes of the school’s High Mistress, Frances Gray, portrayed with excessive eccentricity in something of a caricature by Lucy Ioannou who also plays Holst’s sister, Benigna, in a more tempered mood.
At the age of twenty-one Holst met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was to become a lifelong friend. He is dashingly played by Edward Spence, who brings a sparkle to the stage as a young man of confidence from a well-to-do family. He stands in stark contrast to Holst’s father, Adolph, with whom he had a very difficult and somewhat estranged relationship, played in a suitably austere manner by Alex Stevens who successfully doubles in two other contrasting roles. Joy comes to Holst in the form of Isobel Harrison, whom he marries. Cornelia Baumann makes it easy to understand why he would fall for her. She also doubles as the wife of Adolphus, displaying more warmth and obvious concern than her husband.
HOLST:The Music In The Spheres can be seen as a stand-alone work or with the follow-on play, PAYNE:The Stars Are Fire, that takes up the story of Cecilia Payne and her battle for recognition as an astronomer and astrophysicist in a world controlled and occupies by men. It’s equally compelling.